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You've probably heard of Bandelier and have most likely seen images on television of the towering columns of smoke

Bandelier National Monument


By —— Bio and Archives--February 9, 2010

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imageOne of the most unusual and highly-popular archeological attractions in New Mexico is the 33,000 acre Bandelier National Monument about an hour’s drive northwest of Santa Fe and a mere 15 miles from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where they developed the nuclear bomb. You’ve probably heard of Bandelier and have most likely seen images on television of the towering columns of smoke associated with it because the monument nearly burned to the ground in 2000 during the infamous 48,000-acre Cerro Grande fire.

A controlled burn that got out of hand, it ravaged the upland terrain and threatened 18,000 residents and all of those eerie, top-secret scientific and military experiments taking place at Los Alamos.

Mercifully, the best of the park was spared and approaching through the pinion-juniper forest you’d never know this little New Mexico gem hosted a raging inferno. So don’t let that stop you from visiting.

Bandelier sits on the flanks of Jemez Mountain, the summit of which erupted over one million years ago forming the vast Valles Caldera and deposited enormous amounts of volcanic ash, called tuff. Over time the elements of wind and water carved out the sheer walls of tuff and volcanic rock leaving Frijoles Canyon.

imageIn the process of erosion, these towering, vertical walls became riddled like Swiss cheese with air-pocket caves. Some of these natural cavities were linked together after being enlarged. These “cavates,” were free for the taking, probably ... maybe. Just chase out the rabid bats, scrape off the guano, elbow your neighbors out of the way and it was all yours.

imageEnterprising Ancestral Pueblo Indians (the polite term for the Anasazi) not only lived in these caves but also built large, multistoried structures from A.D. 1150 to 1550 on the valley floor. Impressive to say the least, Tyuonyi (Qu-weh-nee) pueblo consisted of more than 400 rooms, most of them used for storing food.

imageA trip to Bandelier will reward you with spacious views of the deep canyon from the canyon’s rim, and once you make the long, sweeping drive down into the valley you can wander through open, grassy meadows and a pleasant forest of towering conifer and aspen trees. But what draws most visitors, especially in late spring and summer, are the pueblo ruins and the caves - mostly the caves.

Even though the semi-wilderness park is laced with 70 miles of hiking trails, the vast majority of visitors stick to the short-but-sweet, 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail. Heading down the main loop, I didn’t know what to expect when I visited last autumn late in the afternoon with about two hours of direct sunlight to spare.

As I worked my way through the waist-high maze of stacked walls at Tyuonyi pueblo, I began to appreciate how big this thing was and how much sweat and toil it must have taken to fit all the pieces together. The 400 connected rooms are shaped like a rough oval with underground circular kivas in the center. The oval apartment complex of rooms are 3 to 6-deep in places, and were 2 to 3-stories tall in its heyday. Granted, it’s no Chaco Canyon, but it’s impressive none-the-less.

imageWhat lured me farther down the trail were tall, sheer, light-colored canyon walls dotted with caves and holes and crevices of various dimensions. Top to bottom, these holes-in-the-wall are mesmerizing. The eroded surface is uneven in places and smooth in others, with free-standing spires, plunging slits and ledges. A steep and narrow trail meanders along the base of dizzying cliffs and past caves that housed many a family through cold winter nights and blistering hot days. The numerous guardrails are there for a reason, so pay attention if you’re clumsy and get tempted by the many photogenic distractions.

Like all the other tourists, of which there were few that day, I just had to satisfy my curiosity and climbed one of the wooden ladders into one of those small caves. It was round, dark and swept clean, and a bit claustrophobic. I imagined myself in an itchy loincloth squatting shoulder-to-shoulder with my pungent family of eight, fingering squash out of an artfully-decorated clay pot, grunting my pleasure between slurps and burps and secretly wishing for some salt and a dash of picante sauce. And a Diet Coke.

imageMy belly full, I crawled back out and down the ladder and followed the narrow zigzagging trail up and down and up and down, and then up and then really down and then left and then right and then flat for a while and then back up. I thought I was gonna puke. Way up top when I looked down I got dizzy and clutched the railing and closed my eyes but that only made things worse so I opened my eyes and looked down again and tried not to think about how I would feel squealing like a pig and tumbling like a rag doll a hundred feet onto those jagged rocks below, those sharp, pointy ones right over there; or the sickening thud I would make on impact, or the mess ... or the lawsuit.

After I regained my composure I fell in line with the 8-year-olds and made my way safely to Long House, named so probably because the house was really long and stretched along the base of yet another towering slab of holey volcanic tuff. The footings that remain at Long House are still there. You can tell that the rectangular stone structures were 2 to 3-stories tall by the vertical and horizontal markings outlined against the cliff. Many of these stacked-talus houses were built right up against the caves which served as back rooms of sorts.

imageIf you look closely at the wall you’ll see drawings called petroglyphs scratched in the soft surface. More art than graffiti, these ancient etchings are fascinating. My favorite is a replica of the big and fat wild turkey. Turkeys no doubt ran in abundant numbers back then. Ugly heads clicking and clucking, they gleefully pecked and gobbled their way across the length and breadth of the valley floor until chased down by those noble savages of yore and clubbed to death and plucked, gutted and roasted over an open fire to be served up with a delicious side of pasty maize. And that Diet Coke.

By 1550 the Ancestral Pueblo people of Frijoles canyon packed up and migrated east to live in pueblos along the Rio Grande river. Today, the Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, San Ildefonso, Cochti and San Felipe people claim a direct heritage to their cave-dwelling forefathers.

As expected, the white man made Frijoles Canyon his own. Archeologists relished the treasure-trove the ancients left. Private enterprise followed, and between 1934 and 1941 workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made great improvements to the area constructing a road into the valley, the current visitors center, a lodge and many hiking trails.

imageInterestingly, during World War II the park was shut down and taken over by scientists and other members of the Manhattan Project. Occupying the same space as the ancient Anasazi, these modern men seem so out of place surrounded by the long and abiding history of the relatively peaceful primitive cultures. The gulf between the two is monumental and filled with irony.

imageWhereas the people of old were stacking bricks, weaving baskets and watching the corn grow in the enchanting stillness that is New Mexico, the most brilliant minds in the world were pacing through the same forest and peeking into those same caves engrossed in long division trying to figure out how to split that atom and bring a different kind of peace to the earth as the horrors of World War II raged on the other side of the planet.

On second thought, maybe they weren’t so different after all. I’m certain they all shared a human kinship, and came to enjoy and appreciate the serenity, solitude and beauty that can be found, during the appropriate time and season, at Bandelier National Monument.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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